Muller Fasching Verein Nordamerika- Bringing Tyrol to Milwaukee
It turns out, the best time to see witches in Milwaukee is NOT at Halloween… it’s between January 6th and Ash Wednesday, during Fasching/Karneval Season. But the witches are just a supporting role in this performance that goes back 500 years in the Alps of Austria. The 70-member strong Muller Fasching Verein of Nordamerika carries on the Tyrolean tradition of chasing the Winter and bringing on Spring. Masked characters perform the traditional roles of the four seasons, Spring, summer, fall and winter… with the help of musicians playing accordion, witches, dancers keeping time in wood block suits, Schulplattler dancers, and even a bear! The group will show up at bars and restaurants to dance and scare the winter away, and with any luck at all, you will receive a Mullerschlag (known to grant either fertility or luck!)
What are the Mullers?
This Muller tradition comes out of the countryside village of Rum near Innsbruck, Austria. (One of the MARTHA Villages including Mühlau, Arzl, Rum, THaur, Absam). Years ago , people were afraid the long Winters would never end, and out of the stories they told, a special dance that is almost like a play evolved. The characters all wear hand carved wooden masks and specific costumes assigned to the roles they play.
The Four Seasons are represented by figures named Zottler (for Winter), the Zaggler (representing Autumn and the wild), the Melcher and the more elusive Spiegeltuxler (representing summer) and the very important Halbweisse (who represents the spring). But before the Four Seasons can appear, the way needs to be cleared by the Witches! These old crones wear wooden masks and carry brooms to sweep your feet and clear the sins of the previous year. After them comes the Klötzler or woodsman (a man wearing a costume of wooden slats that set a rhythm). Accompanying the Seasonal Dancers are the Melchers… masked men in Lederhosen who dance the Muller Schuplattler while the Button Box players bang out the Muller Waltz on their accordions.
And let’s not forget the BEAR! (Why a bear? This probably goes back to the days when traveling dance groups either had a dancing bear or monkey perform with the group. )
Each Muller group has their own Lokal or restaurant/bar that they use as a clubhouse. But during Fasching, you will see them out in parades, or visiting other restaurants… dancing and offering a drink from their flask.
The Muller Fasching Verein Nordamerika
The Muller Fasching Verein Nordamerika was founded in Germantown, Wisconsin in 1993, to help share this Tyrolean tradition from Rum, Austria with America. In fact, they are the only Muller Group in North America. What started as a group of 15 friends at dinner (their home restaurant is the Von Rothenburg Bier Stube) has grown to over 70 people! And a few new members are voted in annually.
I first met some of the Mullers at German Fest in Milwaukee. While the main group does not perform outside of Karnevel/Fasching Season, the Witches do make an appearance on Friday evening in Milwaukee to share the tradition. They come out onto the dance floor after opening ceremonies, and then wander the grounds a bit delighting the crowd. You won’t hear them talk! The witches, like the rest of the Mullers, only growl or purr to mimic animal noises behind their heavy wooden masks.
The Muller Masks Are Important
Bryan Berenson, Master Woodcarver, at German Fest Milwaukee
The Wooden masks or Larvae, worn by the Mullers, are very special. Originally the group bought their masks in Austria, but today, they have master woodcarver Bryan Berenson, who got his training in Austria. Each time a new man joins the Mullers (yes, it’s a men only organization), they decide on a character. Bryan then takes careful facial measurements, and spends hours discussing exactly how the character will look. This is especially important for the witches, who all have their own look. The seasonal characters tend to be more similar. The masks are such an important part of the tradition, and each one is made specifically for one person.
What’s It Like to Be a Muller?
I was lucky (or pushy) enough to meet Richard Frank, one of the Muller Witches, at my last visit to German Fest. And he was kind enough to share his story about how he became a Muller with me! (although, he did not reveal to me which witch he is!)
Which Witch is Which??
“I had become interested in the Muller Fasching Verein Milwaukee after seeing a few of their performances, via a friend who was a member. After attending a few meetings I decided to join, but not as a performing member, rather as a “passive member” or as a “member at large”. During the off- season the group did a “Brat (sausage) Fry” at which time long time member Jack Suworoff offered up to me his witch mask and costume, so I could wear it to attend the Witches Walk at Milwaukee’s German Fest. (As it is considered “off-season” only the supporting characters, like the Witches, can perform. But not the seasonal characters.)
I then met with Jack, picked up his costume, and went over what it was to be a Muller Witch. (The does and don’ts.) It was and is to this day an interesting experience being in a room full of men putting on dresses, bra’s, wigs and dresses!
That night we were then called out on stage by Scott Bell (Leader of the Alte Kameraden Band and fellow Muller member), and made our way across the stage. I walked down the steps of the stage and was immediately swarmed by people!
All wanting to get there pictures taken with us. It felt like that I was now some sort of a celebrity. We slowly made our way from the stage to the “main street” of the grounds, to only get stopped every few feet for photo requests. Even though we stopped a few times (for liquid refreshments), it took our group hours to make it to the other end of the grounds.
It was from that night that I became hooked!
The next day at German Fest I met with our member master carver Bryan Berenson, and told him I wanted to be a “real” member. And also decided to be a Muller Witch!
Witch Walk German Fest Milwaukee
That same kind of reaction that we get from people is what does it for me, again and again.
Yes as you are getting into costume and waiting to go out you get a bit nervous. (I guess like any other performer, actor, musician.) But it is the audiences reaction that makes it all worth it. Sure being a Witch I scare or make a few children cry. But it is the smiles, and laughter! And the other aspect is the keeping a tradition from long, long ago alive and well. I cannot image what my German (Bavarian) ancestors would think of me doing this!
After many attempts I finally got to have my parents see us. I tried very hard to not have them see my mask or costume. My wife was with them at a special night at Kegel’s Inn. They knew we were going to perform, and enjoyed a nice dinner before our arrival. The group made our way into the restaurant. Did our main performance and then proceeded to “mingle” with the audience. According to my wife Melissa, my mother kept asking her “which Witch is Rich?” But never let out the secret. A fellow Muller Witch came up to them and my mom proceeded to pinch the butt of this witch. Only later to my mother’s complete shock and embarrassment, to find out when we all took off our masks, that it was not me! My fellow Witch brother then went up to her later and asked is she had a good time!
Hard to put a price tag on that!”
Thanks so much Richard for sharing that experience with us!!
See the 2019 Bummel Tour Video HERE–>
The Mullers in Milwaukee
Every year in January, the Muller Fasching Verein kicks off the Karneval/Fasching Season with a Bummel Tour… in one evening they will visit several restaurants/bars in Wisconsin, dancing, sweeping, making people laugh, and sharing their flasks with patrons, before moving on to the next. If you missed the Bummel Tour, you can always check their schedule and catch the next appearance (and maybe offer to refill their flasks for them…. Obstler seems to be the drink of choice)
Sharing Culture is at the Center of Muller Tradition
Muller Fasching Verein Booth at German Fest Milwaukee
The Muller Verein is proud to share their Austrian culture here in America. With some help and support from their partner Rumer Muller club in Tyrol, Austria, the group shares their special Dances, music and costumes. If you are lucky, you might get the chance to see them perform and maybe even get invited onto the dance floor… and if you are very lucky, you will receive a Mullerschlag or tap.
The Mullers meet on the second Monday of each month at the Von Rothenburg Bier Stube in Germantown, at 7:30pm. And they always have a booth in the Culture Tent at German Fest Milwaukee.